About Calvary Chapel and its History

How it all started...

Calvary Chapel, a non-denominational, Evangelical fellowship of Christian churches, began in 1965 in Southern California. It presents itself as a “fellowship of churches” in contrast to a denomination. Churches that apply and qualify for affiliation through an extensive and thorough application process, can then use the name “Calvary Chapel”, but need not do so. Calvary Chapel has over one thousand such congregations worldwide. The original Calvary Chapel is Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, pastored by Chuck Smith. Doctrinally, Calvary Chapel is evangelical, pretribulationist, and strongly committed to the Reformational principle of sola scriptura.

Calvary Chapels widely use a Pastor-led church governmental system sometimes referred to the “Moses” model; however some use an episcopal church-governance structure. Tongues and prophecy do not form a normal part of typical Sunday morning church services, but the chapels regard such practices as doctrinally valid, like all the Gifts of the Spirit. Calvary Chapels faithfully uphold expository teaching, a “verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book” approach to teaching the Bible. This essentially means that their sermons are directly related to a passage of the Bible, and following sermons will start where the previous sermon left off (often this is done from Genesis to Revelation). They hold the opinion that a steady diet of topical studies only largely fail to present the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) and that ministers who use this approach often choose topics that they have a certain inclination to teach, while leaving out important (and sometimes controversial) issues of the Bible. It is Calvary’s desire to teach, not preach the word, in order to equip and train laymen for everyday ministry – as well as encourage development of a personal relationship with Christ. Calvary Chapel also maintains a number of radio stations around the world and operates many local Calvary Chapel Bible College programs. Chuck Smith’s “Calvary Chapel Distinctives” summarizes holistically the tenets for which Calvary Chapel stands. 


In December 1965, Chuck Smith became the pastor of a 25-person congregation and in 1968 broke away from the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel denomination in Santa Ana, California. Before Smith became their pastor, twelve of the 25 members attended a prayer meeting about whether or not to close their church: they reported that “the Holy Spirit spoke to them through prophecy” and told them that Chuck would become their pastor, that he would want to elevate the platform area, that God would bless the church, that it would go on the radio, that the church would become overcrowded, and that he would become known throughout the world.

Calvary Chapel then became associated with what later became known as the Jesus Movement when Chuck’s daughter introduced him to her boyfriend John, a former hippie who had become a Christian. John then introduced Chuck to Lonnie Frisbee, a hippie Christian who would eventually become a key figure in the Jesus Movement and in Calvary Chapel. Lonnie moved into Chuck’s home, and in a few days, more hippies moved in with Chuck and his wife. 



Affiliates of Calvary Chapel believe in the fundamental doctrines of evangelical Christianity, which include the inerrancy of the Bible and the Trinity. Within evangelical Christianity, they say that they stand in the “middle ground between fundamentalism and Pentecostalism in modern Protestant theology”. While they applaud fundamentalism’s staunch support of the inerrancy of the Bible, they believe Fundamentalists have become “rigid, legalistic, and unaccepting of spiritual gifts.” On the other hand, they believe Pentecostals have become “enthusiastic and emotional at the expense of the teaching of God’s Word.” In other words, a church service should be about being made into a disciple (Matthew 28 and the Great Commission), and less about the “experience”. 

Calvinism and Arminianism

In the much-debated matter of salvation, two major perspectives have evolved within Protestant Christianity: Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvary Chapel strives to “strike a balance between extremes” when it comes to controversial theological issues such as this one. They also “try to avoid conclusions, terminology, and arguments which are not clearly presented in the Bible”. For example, an argument or debate would not ensue simply because of a claim that someone or some denomination seems “Calvinist”. But Calvary Chapels discuss the five points of Calvinism on the basis of biblical exegesis as addressed below:

1. On the first point, Calvary Chapel agrees with Calvinism’s view of all men as “sinners” but holds that — with God’s grace — salvation becomes possible.

2. On point number two, Calvinists believe that man’s election to salvation lies completely in the choice of God, while Arminians see it as completely the choice of man. Calvary Chapel has taken a middle ground approach by saying that “God clearly does choose, but man must also accept God’s invitation to salvation.”

3. On point number three, Calvary strongly sides with Arminianism, which contends that Jesus died “for the whole world”; this contrasts with the Calvinist view that Jesus’ death sufficiently covers every sin but was intended and therefore efficient only for those who would believe. Based on scriptures, Calvary states: “The atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ was clearly sufficient to save the entire human race.”

4. Point four has to do with man’s ability to resist God. Calvary sides with Arminianism here and believes that “God’s grace can either be resisted or received by the exercise of human free will”. (Calvinists believe in irresistible grace).

5. On the final point, Calvary Chapels believe in the perseverance of the saints (true believers), but express deep concern about sinful lifestyles and rebellious hearts among those who call themselves “Christians” – based on the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:21-23.

Chuck Smith summed up Calvary Chapel’s philosophy regarding these perspectives and the believer’s understanding as follows:

It is not easy to maintain the unity of the Spirit among us on these matters. It seems that the sovereignty of God and human responsibility are like two parallel lines that do not seem to intersect within our finite minds. God’s ways are “past finding out” (Romans 11:33), and the Bible warns us to “lean not unto thy own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). To say what God says in the Bible – no more and no less – is not always easy, comfortable, or completely understandable. But Scripture tells us that the wisdom from above will be loving and kind toward all, seeking the unity of the believers, not trying to find ways to divide and separate from one another …. In difficult doctrinal matters, may we have gracious attitudes and humble hearts, desiring most of all to please Him who has called us to serve Him in the body of Christ. 

the Holy spirit

Although Calvary Chapel believes in the continuing efficacy of the gift of tongues, it does not recognize uninterpreted tongues spoken in a congregational setting as necessarily inspired (or at least directed) by the Holy because of its understanding of 1 Corinthians 14. Calvary Chapel accepts that the Bible affirms interpreted tongues and modern prophecy. Practicing tongues in private occurs more commonly. Calvary Chapel does not teach that the outward manifestation of every Christian counts as speaking in tongues. Instead, the movement’s theologians regard speaking in tongues as one of the many Spirit and see believers as blessed as the Spirit moves (1 Corinthians 12). 

Baptism and Communion

Calvary Chapels practice baptism by immersion. Calvary Chapel does not regard baptism as necessary for salvation, but instead sees it as an outward sign of an inward change. As a result, the Chapels do not baptize infants rather they dedicate them to God. Calvary Chapel views Communion in a symbolic way, with reference to 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. 

Church Government

Some Calvary Chapels consider themselves to have more of an Episcopal government than anything else. Calvary Chapels believe that scripture presents four forms of church government:

1. Congregationalist

2. Presbyterian

3. Episcopal

4. Theocratic

Immediately, Calvary Chapels reject congregational rule because they believe congregations made poor decisions in the Old Testament, citing Exodus 16:2 as an example: “And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness”. They believe that the New Testament clearly ordains the Presbyterian and Episcopal forms of church government: Acts 14:23, 1 Timothy 3:1.

The fourth system (theocracy), the one that the majority of Calvary Chapels have adopted, models its government after the theocracy that God created in the Old Testament — sometimes called the “Moses model”. In this system, God headed the church, and under God came Moses, who led the Israelites as God directed him. Moses also had a priesthood and seventy elders under him for support. Calvary Chapel has adapted this schema so that their pastors have a role like Moses and their boards of elders function like the priesthood or the seventy elders. 


Calvary Chapels strongly espouse pretribulationist and premillennialist views in their eschatology (the study of the end times). They believe that the rapture of the Church will occur first, followed by a literal seven-year period of great tribulation, followed by the second coming of Jesus Christ, and then finally a literal thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ on earth called the Millennial Kingdom. Calvary Chapel also reject supersessionism and instead believes that the Jews remain God’s chosen people and that Israel will play an important part in the end times.

Interest in one event during the Tribulation — the building of a Third Temple in Jerusalem — once led to associations between some in Calvary Chapel (including Chuck Smith) and Jewish groups interested in seeing the temple rebuilt.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chuck Smith discussed a prophetic timeline that suggested the Rapture would occur in 1981. The reasoning had to do with the idea that the 7-year Tribulation would end in 1988, forty years after the establishment of Israel. The resulting disappointment caused some to leave the church. 


The Calvary Chapel Outreach Fellowship (CCOF) has the responsibility of affiliating churches with Calvary Chapel. A church that affiliates with Calvary Chapel often (but not always) uses the name “Calvary Chapel”. Three requirements for becoming affiliated exist:

1. The pastor must “embrace the characteristics of the Calvary Chapel movement as described in Calvary Chapel Distinctives”

2. The church must have the characteristics of a church (as opposed to a less-developed home fellowship)

3. An applicant must express willingness to spend the time to fellowship with other Calvary Chapels
Notably, the requirements do not include a seminary degree.

Regional lead pastors exercise a measure of accountability. Since no legal or financial ties link the different Calvary Chapels, only disaffiliation can serve as a disciplinary procedure.

In accordance with Calvary’s interpretation and understanding of the Bible (see 1 Timothy 3:2 and 1 Timothy 3:12), Calvary Chapel does not ordain women or homosexuals as pastors. 


Calvary Chapel’s overall philosophy of the purpose of the Church takes as its basis Ephesians 4:11-12: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” Calvary Chapels believe that this contrasts with churches that focus only on evangelism. Chuck Smith has stated that the Church has the purpose of bringing glory to God as God’s instrument in ministry, and in a secondary sense, of equipping the Church for that ministry.

Emphasis on the Bible forms arguably Calvary Chapel’s most defining practice. Calvary Chapel pastors tend to prefer expositional sermons rather than topical ones, and they will often give their sermons sequentially from the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. One of the reasons for their choice is people’s tendency to speak only on topics which they like while leaving out topics that may seem uninspirational yet still important. They believe that by teaching through the entire Bible, they will be able to say that they have “declared unto you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Another advantage, they say, is that it makes difficult topics easier to address because members of the congregation won’t feel like they are being singled out. That is to say, they won’t feel that the pastor chose a particular sermon because of some flaw he saw in the congregation. They also see an advantage in the steady edification of the congregation. Rather than some preachers “who come in with a flash and a fire,” they try to have consistent teaching that, over time, brings the “perfecting of the saints” which is part of their general philosophy for the Church. In teaching expositorily through scripture sequentially, it allows the Bible and/or the Lord/Holy Spirit to set the agenda, not the pastor.

Calvary Chapels believe that most churches have a “dependent, highly organized, and structured” environment, but that most people want an “independent and casual way of life”. Calvary therefore has decided to have a casual and laid-back atmosphere in their churches. As a practical implication of this philosophy, people may wear street clothes to church. This “come as you are” atmosphere reflects the way the Bible describes Jesus’ teachings, and that of the early Christian church in the book of Acts. However, many Calvary Chapels require parents to drop off all children younger than teens to a Sunday School class in order to allow the adults to concentrate on worship, fellowship and the teaching. Adherence to this unofficial guideline varies from church to church. Calvary Chapel Sunday Schools predominantly take place within the same building as the main services. They offer age-specific classes (for example: 0-3 yrs, 3-7, 7-12, and teen), often taught by volunteers from the congregation on a rotational basis. Many members see this as an opportunity to nurture young ones by instilling Christian values and the love of Jesus Christ into the children.

Praise and worship usually consists of upbeat contemporary Christian music which differs from the hymns sung at more traditional churches (although many Calvarys also play hymns). The style of worship generally reflects the region and the specific make-up of the congregation.

Calvary Chapel does not have a formalized system of church membership. Calling a Calvary Chapel one’s church usually means regularly attending church services and becoming involved in fellowship with other “members” of the church.


Bible College

Technically, Calvary Chapel has only one Bible college: Calvary Chapel Bible College (CCBC), located in Murrieta, California. However, this school also has at least 90 extension campuses throughout the world. Founded in 1975, it originally offered a “short, intensive study program”, but it subsequently became a two-year school which awards Certificates of Completion, Associate in Theology degrees, and Bachelor of Biblical Studies degrees (depending on a student’s educational history). No matter which degree or certificate a student earns, the course requirements remain the same.

Calvary Chapel now offers a Master’s degree program at the Costa Mesa campus, where the Calvary Chapel School of Ministry (SoM) operates. The college as a whole does not have accreditation, but students can transfer CCBC credits to some major accredited colleges such as Azusa Pacific. The college does not seek accreditation, as this allows Calvary Chapel to control the content of instruction and curriculum.